PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – is at it again. When actress Jessica Simpson recently wore a T-shirt bearing the words “Real Girls Eat Meat,” the animal-rights zealots pounced. “Jessica Simpson might have a right to wear what she wants,” a PETA spokesperson said, “but she doesn’t have a right to eat what she wants – eating meat is about suffering and death.”
Listening to animal-rights activists bray on about the wrongness of slaughtering animals for food – summarized in their advocacy phrase “meat is murder” – one would think that the choice we have is between a diet in which animals are killed and a strictly vegan diet involving no animal deaths.
But life is never that simple: Plant agriculture results each year in the mass slaughter of countless animals, including rabbits, gophers, mice, birds, snakes, and other field creatures. These animals are killed during harvesting, and in the various mechanized farming processes that produce wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and other staples of vegan diets. And that doesn’t include the countless rats and mice poisoned in grain elevators, or the animals that die from loss of habitat cleared for agricultural use.
Animal-rights activists certainly don’t mention this inconvenient fact in their advocacy materials. But if the matter comes up in debate, they have a problem: They believe it is “speciesist” to grant some sentient animals – including humans – greater value than others; as PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk so famously put it, “a rat, is a fish, is a dog, is a boy.” Thus, they cannot contend that it is more wrong to kill a pig than a rabbit. Nor can they argue that field animals experience less-agonizing deaths from plant agriculture than food animals do from food-animal slaughtering. Field animals may flee in panic as the great rumbling harvest combines approach, only to be shredded to bits within their merciless blades; they may be burned to death when field leavings are burned; they may be poisoned by pesticides; they may die from predation when their plant cover has been removed.
No question: The animal-rights forces hold a weak intellectual hand.
I asked an animal-rights leader, Rutgers law professor Gary Francione, what he thought about this. He claimed that the key issue is intent:
Forget about animals. The very same situation exists with respect to humans. We build roads knowing that people will die; we raise speed limits knowing that an additional 10 miles means X deaths. . . . There is an enormous difference between harm that happens that we do not intend to occur and that which we intend. We should obviously endeavor to commit as little harm as possible but we cannot eliminate harm. We can, however, eliminate intentional harm. And eating animals involves an intentional decision to participate in the suffering and death of nonhumans where there is no plausible moral justification.
Francione also claimed that omnivores occasion a far greater animal-death toll than vegans: “It takes 3 ¼ acres to feed an omnivore for a year; 20 vegans can be fed from that same space. Therefore, to the extent that there is harm caused to sentient beings by the production of plants, that harm is only multiplied by the omnivore.”
But neither “intent” (as Francione defines it) nor utilitarian comparison of the carnage is the real issue. The argument made by animal-rights activists is that meat is murder, while veganism is supposedly cruelty-free.
Moreover, even if the relative number of animals killed were the morally decisive issue, veganism might not be the most ethical solution. In 2001, S. L. Davis of the Department of Animal Sciences at Oregon State University, Corvallis, wrote a paper claiming that the diet most likely to result in the deaths of the fewest animals would be beef, lamb, and dairy – not vegan. Davis found a study that measured mouse population density per hectare in grain fields both before and after harvest and estimated a harvest casualty rate of ten mice per hectare. Then, he multiplied that figure by 120 million hectares of farmland in the U.S.; meaning that 1.2 billion mice would die each year in food production if America became a wholly vegan country. Next, he estimated the number of animals that would be killed if half of our fields were dedicated to raising grass eating forage animals (cows, calves, sheep, lambs, etc.) from which to obtain meat. He found that there would Be 300,000 fewer animal deaths (.9 billion) annually from such an omnivorous diet than the number of deaths (1.2 billion mice) that would be caused from a universal vegan diet.
We are not obligated to do any such thing, of course. But I think Davis’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek study made an important point: Contending that meat eating is somehow murder while veganism is morally pristine because it doesn’t result in intentional animal deaths is factually false and self-delusional. No matter your diet, animals surely died that you might live.